In crunch time, and with the game on the line, Kobe Bryant continued to trust his teammates, and was rewarded for it.
In the recent past, in a tense situation like this, you knew what was coming – Kobe would have taken on the opposing team himself, for better or (usually) worse.
Not tonight. In crunch time, he continued to trust his teammates – one teammate in particular – and what happened was a thing of beauty, and a blueprint for continued success.
In the final two minutes, the Lakers brought the ball up the court four times. See if you can find the common element in these four possessions:
Lakers 102-Hornets 101: Steve Nash brings the ball up court, then passes to Kobe. When the double-team comes, Kobe passes to Earl Clark under the basket, who makes the lay-up. There was now 1:44 remaining.
Lakers 104-Hornets 101: Kobe brings the ball up court. When the double-team comes, he passes to Clark, who passes to a wide-open Nash for the three-pointer. There was now 1:21 remaining.
Lakers 107-Hornets 101: Kobe brings the ball up court. When the double-team comes, he passes to a cutting Clark, who misses a challenged but makeable lay-up. There was now 0:38 remaining.
Lakers 107-Hornets 104: This final play is my favourite. Nash brings the ball up court, then passes to Kobe. Kobe waits for the double-team to come, and when it doesn’t, he begins to drive to the basket before abruptly pulling back. This fake-drive prompts Greivis Vasquez to leave his man to double-team Kobe, which is exactly what Kobe had been waiting for him to do. With the double-team coming, Kobe passes to Clark, who quickly moves the ball to Jamison, who attacks the open lane to score. There was now 0:15 remaining – the game was essentially over.
In each of the Lakers’ four final possessions, all crucial, Kobe Bryant passed out of double-teams to Earl Clark, and Clark and the other Lakers rewarded him by scoring seven points on those four plays.
It was the Lakers’ third win in a row, and Kobe’s third consecutive Magic-like performance. Tonight, he scored 14 points, dished out 11 assists, and grabbed eight rebounds.
Over these last three memorable performances, Kobe has averaged 16 points (on 7 of 11 shooting), 13 assists (against 3 turnovers) and nine rebounds. Wow. And what may be even more impressive is that Kobe has done this playing in just 36 minutes per game, noticeably below the 39 minutes per game he’s averaged this year.
And Kobe’s play-making was contagious. The Lakers had a season high 34 assists on 39 baskets – a breathtaking 87% assist rate.
This Mike D’Antoni-inspired, Kobe Bryant-led approach of constant ball movement certainly seems like a blue-print for the Lakers to be successful.
Perhaps the reason Kobe consistently gave the ball to Earl Clark in crunch time was that Clark was having a fabulous game. He scored 20 points on 8 of 11 shooting (including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc), grabbed 12 rebounds, and dished out four assists.
I am increasingly of the opinion that if Pau Gasol is called upon to finish games in the future, it will be to fill Dwight Howard’s spot, not Earl Clark’s. Clark is just too dynamic and versatile – at both ends of the floor.
Dwight Howard led the Lakers in scoring, with 24 points on 9 of 13 shooting. He also tied his career high with five steals, but somehow managed just four rebounds on the night.
Steve Nash played one of those modest but efficient games that have become his calling card with the Lakers. He scored 12 points on 4 of 5 shooting, including 3 of 4 from downtown, one of which was desperately needed with 1:21 remaining. He added five assists against just one turnover.
Finally, the bench deserves special praise. Steve Blake made his return after missing nearly three months, and he contributed 13 solid minutes in a game where – for the most part – the bench outplayed the starters. Blake, Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks all finished with positive plus-minuses, and the four of them combined for 38 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, and just two turnovers.
It looks to me as though Mike D’Antoni has found a nine-man rotation.
The Lakers now embark on a seven-game road trip. The travel is tough, but the opponents are, for the most part, beatable. The Lakers should be happy with nothing less than a 5-2 road-trip record.
Lakers’ Player of the Game
The guys on TV gave the honor to Earl Clark, who had a helluva game, but I’m giving it to Kobe Bryant – see above. For the third straight game, he has been the chess master, moving the pieces (Clark, Howard, Nash) to great effect. It was the third consecutive brilliant performance by the maestro.
Tonight’s Top Two Tweets in my Twitter Feed
“Lakers need to play better D in general – but the new spirit of sharing the ball makes them really hard to stop offensively.” – @EricPincus, late-game tweet
“In the end, they were Pelican’ts. AK” – @KamBrothers, post-game tweet
Wednesday, January 30 at the Phoenix Suns, 7:30 p.m. PST